When I saw Patrick Scheel on his social media profiles posting about his birthday plan to run for 24 hours on a track to collect donations with WWF for protecting forests, it blew my mind. 24 hours? Non-stop?
And on the sunny midday of the last November day, he made it – not only completed the run but also managed to exceed his goal for raising donations for WWF. Though the longest, it is not the first challenge Patrick took as an ultra trail runner.
Just before Christmas, we met on Zoom to talk about his running adventures back at home and in Germany, where he is currently studying a master’s in Sustainable Resource Management, as well as about a role that sustainability plays in the outdoor sports scene.
So first tell me how and when did you start running?
I started running when I was 15 years old. But I hated it – my father was inviting me to run 5-10 kilometers races on the weekends, and I was too bored because it was just about running in the street. That was when I was 15. I then started training for a longer race of a half-marathon with my girlfriend. I still found it boring, but I was doing it to see if I manage to do it.
Later I discovered that I could also run in the mountains – in Mexico, I live just beside one of the biggest national parks in the north of the country. It is an amazing playground to be in nature and to get lost in the forest. I know it is like a cliché, but I started feeling this connection with nature when being by myself. In the beginning, I was listening to music, but then I started enjoying nature without music, just being mindful of the moment, thinking about my surroundings, and being present. That was a perfect combination to improve drastically in this sport. Because that is the most important part – just being present and giving everything you have in that exact precise moment and understand what your body and mind are capable of.
So I think it was about four years ago that I started racing in a lot of races – it escalated exponentially because I was increasing the distance and difficulty of trail running races, meaning running in the mountains or a forest. There are also very long races called Ultras or ultra trail running marathons since they are longer than 42 kilometers. These are the ones that I enjoy the most because you have to prove yourself if you are capable of doing this both physically and mentally.
I wanted to communicate that if we do not preserve our natural spaces, in the future we might only be able to run in the city or on a track.
And this all led to the challenges you take on. Tell me about them, including the one you did just a month ago.
A couple of years ago, I did a challenge where I ran seven marathons in 7 days; each day, I ran from my house to the national park. It was for raising awareness of the importance of conserving our national parks and the fact that Monterrey city is highly polluted. It is 7 million people city, and there is a lot of contamination. It is hard to run there – I had to run with a face mask before they were trendy (smiling). I wanted to draw attention to the fact that we can run and walk, and we do not need to use our cars every day. Also, I wanted to bring awareness about the ecosystem services that mountains and nature provide us, like food, wood, regulating services – the forest is absorbing all the additional CO2 emissions from the city, etc.
And I also did this challenge one month ago. Each year I do something crazy like this for my birthday. I did not understand why people run flat or in the streets, and I had always wanted to run for 24 hours and see what happens with my body. So I wanted to run because I love it, but I also wanted to get something additional – I contacted WWF and found this website for gathering donations. In the end, we raised nearly 2000$. I was very happy, because, in the beginning, my goal was 500$, then I raised it to 700$, and I saw people chipping in. And I wanted to communicate that if we do not preserve our natural spaces, in the future we might only be able to run in the city or on a track, and I do not imagine how it would be possible for me.
That is quite impressive! And you are also a plant-based athlete. How did you come to this decision, and what have been the challenges?
When I was studying Engineering and Sustainable Development in Mexico, most of our courses were about a sustainable business – considering the economic and the social aspects and, very importantly, the environmental ones. Nowadays, it looks obvious, but some years ago, it was not. So in the courses, we were analyzing the ecological footprint of us as humans, but also as students and citizens. It was interesting to understand the environmental impact behind our day-to-day activities that sometimes we are not aware of. And the livestock industry is one of the main sources of CO2 emissions in general.
So I started doing this shift to a plant-based diet and reading a lot about that. It is amazing to see the number of endurance and professional athletes who have applied these types of diets. People ask me, “Where do you get your proteins? How are you doing this?”. It is not a secret or anything, that is an advantage – it is easier to have a plant-based diet, plus it goes along with my principles that I want to reduce my environmental impact in this world.
How is it easier? What is an advantage?
I digest food really quickly, I can ingest many calories in short times, and my body can absorb that energy, thus I never feel heavy or having difficulty digesting the food. For example, in the 24-hour challenge, according to my watch, I burnt 11,000 calories. That meant I had to consume 11,000, too. I trained this, which is running while eating. Doing this plant-based has been really easy because my body is already used to this. So I was running and eating like a whole hamburger in two bites, and I was consuming that energy, and I felt really light – it was easy to digest.
It could be another whole interview about nutrition – I have other things that I am consuming every day, such as protein shakes with different powders, spirulina, turmeric, many vegetables, fruits.
And what kind of feedback you got from people regarding the last challenge as one of your goals was to raise awareness?
Of course, the main feedback was the amount of money that we collected. Also, it was very nice to have a lot of people who joined me in the run virtually and physically. It could be that they joined just because they wanted to support me, but I also hope that they came because they were supporting the whole cause. In total 35 people showed up, within different time slots since we could not run in a big number due to the restrictions. So I never ran alone. Even in the middle of the night, a couple of Germans, whom I did not know before, ran with me between 2 AM and 4 AM. It was like -7 degrees, really cold. It shows people were interested in this project, even those that did not know me, which is really nice. Also, a lot of friends told me that they remembered how fun it was to run; some friends texted me after saying that they started to again run in the forest and appreciate the things that they have forgotten, and that was really touching for me.
I can imagine! You said earlier you wanted to have this experience to see how you survive it – so how was it? What was happening in those 24 hours in your body and your mind?
A couple of months ago, I was not sure if I was capable of doing this. So I trained accordingly, but in the end, the most difficult part to train is the mind. You can imagine that for running 24 hours non stop my pace was not that fast. It was nice because even people who did not have good fitness could run as I was running slow, but without stopping. So physically it was not that hard, though, of course, in the end, I felt destroyed. But generally, it was easy to train for this – I am good at feeling my body, I had the whole schedule for each half an hour of what I had to do, how many calories I had to ingest, how many liquids, what type of liquids, and my gear that I was using. So physically it was difficult, but I had a strategy to survive that.
However, mentally it was a huge challenge because, in the end, I ran around the track for nearly 500 laps, so it was 196 km. It is important to have a clear mindset of what you are doing as well as clear goals, always being mindful of the moment, having small objectives. If my objective was to finish in 24 hours, my mind would have collapsed because 24 hours is long. Instead, my goal was, for example, to finish this lap because then I will have chocolate. So I had these small goals, and it was really motivating for the mental part. Also, at least every two hours, I was changing the direction to have it less monotonous.
I also ran with friends and random people who joined me, so I was always distracted, having different conversations with them, sharing experiences. In the beginning, I was talking a lot, and I was very cheerful, but in the middle of the night, it got rough. People were running with me and telling me stories, but I could not reply – I was dozing off. It was like an out of a body experience – I was listening to these people, but I was in a complete trans, and my body was just going and going without stopping. It is a nice feeling that I enjoy – this adrenaline rush. In the end, it is like a fight between your body, your mind, and, I could even say, your soul. My mind is telling my body to keep going, but my body is destroyed – so it is this interaction between yourself and your inner selves that helps you keep going. And in the end, if you focus on the present moment, it is amazing what we are capable of. That was another message that I wanted to transmit – that if we have a clear mindset, we can achieve anything. And, of course, it was hard, but I would do it again without a doubt.
But you still had to stop during those 24 hours?
Of course, I had to stop. My biggest fear was the temperature. Luckily it did not snow, but it was -7 degrees in the night, so that was tough. I wanted to run in my sandals, so I wore some toe socks and sandals. I had my running shoes just in case, but in the end, I was able to finish 24 hours only with the sandals. I did not change my clothes, but I only put my jacket on top and some gloves.
I was sometimes stopping to have some soup, I ate a lot of oats, even had a couple of hamburgers, some burritos, some mashed potatoes. So I sometimes stopped for a couple of seconds to eat something and then kept going. Also, I had some stretching that I did every couple of hours, so in the end, I stopped for a couple of minutes, but yes, it was basically non-stop.
Was it mentally the most challenging run you ever had?
It may sound weird, but the most exhausting experience in my life was a 10 km race, which I did in about 30 minutes. Those were the longest and the toughest minutes that I have ever done. But this is very different – that was high intensity, and this last challenge was high volume. So, physically those 30 minutes were more difficult than these 24 hours. But mentally, the latter was more challenging.
Also, it is very important to differentiate between pain and suffering. There is a saying, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”. You can decide if that pain will be positive and will give you more energy or if it will be negative and will destroy you.
How do you use pain to your advantage?
It is philosophical. To train for this, I also have other techniques that I use. There is this man Wim Hof, also called The Iceman – he has a lot of world records of withstanding cold, climbing the Kilimanjaro with a shirt, controlling his inner body temperature with his mind but also with his breathing. So, in the end, if we are feeling things, we can decide if we can suppress or not suppress the pain because we need to accept the pain since it is a real thing, but we need to suppress the suffering.
You can control physically and mentally how you feel with different breathing techniques. When I train and when I run, I apply the breathing and other techniques related to this method, including, e.g., cold showers. By breathing, you can be extremely comfortable even if, for example, you are barefoot in the snow. So that also helped me a lot to suppress suffering.
How do you see the contribution of the Outdoor sports community to sustainability?
There is this Outdoor friendly pledge. It is a nice commitment that you make for yourself and the whole community to reduce your footprint by participating in local races, reducing and recycling your equipment, volunteering in environmental events, and organizing events like the one I just did, locally.
The athlete behind the pledge is Kilian Jornet. He has many world records and has won the most important race in the world. He started his foundation also to collect donations for research to study glaciers, for example. Then he created this pledge for athletes, but also for federations, event organizers, or for brands – everything that surrounds any kind of outdoor sports. This way we can be in tune with what we can do and what we cannot do while we practice our sports. And maybe we do not have a very high environmental impact, but everybody has an ecological footprint, and it is important to address it somehow.
It is really nice because it connects different stakeholders that are related to the scene. Some event organizers seek to reduce the trash they generate during the event, so they ask runners to bring their cups to avoid plastic cups in an event. Or instead of giving you a medal, souvenirs, or stuff, they plant a tree on your behalf. These are the types of activities and actions that everybody can make to reduce our impact. And with this pledge, everybody is in tune.
All of these actions are aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations. With this pledge, you have a list of activities that you can do on the day to day basis to address these goals.
When I finish these goals, these challenges, even if I struggle and maybe find many obstacles, in the end, I always understand that I am capable of doing a little bit more.
Do you already have in mind another challenge for 2021, or are you still resting from the last one?
I am still resting, it took a couple of days because my knee was hurting, but now I am running again. I do not have any short term plans, but I have some races planned – in July, I intend to do a 100-mile race in Spain. I also applied for another race in France in August, and I am going to run the Berlin marathon in October. But if races get canceled, that is when I start to get anxious and make up my own challenges. So let’s see what happens in 2021.
I really enjoy putting my body to its limits to see what I am capable of. When I finish these goals, these challenges, even if I struggle and maybe find many obstacles, in the end, I always understand that I am capable of doing a little bit more. So I am always increasing them, and I am eager to see when I will find the threshold I will not be able to surpass. However, I am very happy right now, and let’s see what other challenges will come in the future.
Happy and inspiring New Year to everyone!
Note – all the photos are from the personal archive of Patrick Scheel.